What do former boxer Frank Bruno, comedienne Ruby Wax, and former labour spin doctor Alistair Campbell have in common? They’re all celebrities who have suffered from depression. And perhaps more importantly, they are all open in the media about their past mental health problems.

Britain is fairly obsessed with celebrities. Go into any newsagents and you can see various magazines and tabloids telling us about every aspect of famous people’s personal lives. Increasingly, mental health problems seem to be a big part of this. A lot of the time this is presented in a typically insensitive and ignorant way: the Sun drew widespread criticism when, in 2003, it had the front page headline ‘Bonkers Bruno Locked Up’. Similarly magazines will often show pictures of thin celebrities who have ‘gone too far’ with the unsubtle implication that they might have an eating disorder.

In short, many celebrities have trouble keeping their problems secret. Media attention must often make things worse. Someone with anorexia who has a photo of themselves on the beach broadcast around the world isn’t exactly going to suddenly feel good about their body. Such voyeuristic and often inaccurate reporting is sadly common when it comes to mental illness, and is not limited to celebrities. But an increasing number of famous individuals are now being open about mental illnesses they may have dealt with, for example actress Gwyneth Paltrow has openly talked about her post-natal depression.

For the general population this openness can be really important for a number of reasons. Firstly, it gets mental health issues out there so people take notice. Secondly, when celebs are open about it this reduces stigma and makes having them seem more normal. As a result it is possible that this encourages mental health problems to be uncovered and tackled. A huge proportion of people suffering don’t go and speak to a health professional due to fear and other reasons. Celebrities may give people confidence to do so: when Kylie Minogue was fighting breast cancer the number of women getting screened increased. It’s possible that celebrities being open may have the same beneficial effect on mental health.

However there may be slightly worrying results of this phenomenon: this normalisation of mental illness might go too far. In a way some problems have become almost fashionable in recent years. Checking into the priory for a bit of rehab for example seems like a bit of rite of passage for rock stars. Many celebrities such as Stephen Fry, Kerry Katona and Catherine Zeta-Jones have said they have bipolar disorder in recent year, so much so that there is even a book called ‘You Don’t Have to be Famous to Have Manic Depression’. Of course this is true: the vast majority of people with bipolar aren’t famous, and the vast majority of celebrities are not bipolar. But the media mainly talks about these people because they are famous.

The result is that we may get a slightly skewed description of the illness: a neat press release by their publicist which emphasises how well they are doing. In addition famous people tend to be rich, and opt for private care, rather than getting help with the NHS – not very realistic for most people. Many people with bipolar spend recklessly when manic- again not a problem if you are minted. I always notice that the negatives are often underemphasised in celebrities with bipolar, and there are often descriptions of the ‘positive’ aspects of their illness, so the idea of the ‘creative, tortured genius’ in all of those with bipolar persists. Some even make light of having this diagnosis by using it for publicity.

Some celebrities use their mental illness for marketing. Is this sending the wrong message?

Many celebrities though do some very good work for mental health awareness. To be fair to Kerry Katona she helped publicise a research project on bipolar at Cardiff University. Stephen Fry has also made a very good documentary about bipolar disorder.


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Many famous faces have also joined the ‘Time to Change’ campaign (http://www.time-to-change.org.uk/) which aims to increase awareness and reduce stigma about mental health problems. But there is still a problem in that celebrities in our culture are deemed successful: therefore this suggests mentally ill people can be very successful. This is a good optimistic message in a way but is sadly not always true.

However, what is perhaps more concerning is the research evidence that the publicity of celebrity mental health problems can directly influence the general population. Take eating disorders. Celebrities with eating disorders are well publicised in tabloid media and gossip mags. Those without eating disorders may also say things which may influence their fans: Kate Moss for example said ‘Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels’- not particularly helpful for those at risk to eating disorders. Research also shows, a relationship between ‘celebrity worship’ and body image in teenage girls i.e. those who are obsessed with celebrities are more likely to have concerns about how they look. For drugs, it has been suggested that a recent decrease in teenage drug use is due to the squeaky-clean nature of young musicians of today (Tinie Tempah, Ellie Goulding) being tee-total, compared to the openly addicted Pete Doherty and Amy Winehouse in the early noughties.

Also for suicide, which is strongly related to mental illness, research in Taiwan and China has shown significant increases in suicide rates after a high profile media suicide. Research in western countries has failed to show a similar effect after high profile celebrity suidices such as Kurt Cobain. Although media reporting still needs to be sensitive to prevent copycat deaths this doesn’t always happen. When former child TV presenter Mark Speight hung himself the grim details were given, including some papers having a photo with an arrow so you could see exactly where is body was found.

So perhaps this is a double-edged knife. Sometimes mental illness in celebrities can lead to distorted or often simply dangerous reporting in the media. But increasingly it seems that their publicity is being harnessed for good to increase awareness and encourage people to seek help. Our national obsession with celebrities is unlikely to go away, so when one has a problem let’s hope media reports will be understanding rather than judgmental, and use this for public education rather than gossip.

 

 

If you want any information or advice about the issues raised in this article here are some useful sources:

- You can talk to your GP about any concerns

- NHS choices: This website has an A-Z of health problems and information on them http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/Pages/hub.aspx

- NHS Direct: Their website has a health checker service www.nhsdirect.nhs.uk/en/CheckSymnptoms where you can find out about a number of conditions including mental health problems. You can also phone them 24/7 on 0845 4647  

- The Manic Depression Fellowship is a good source of information on Bipolar Disorder: http://www.mdf.org.uk/?o=56878

- Talk to Frank: Information about drugs:  0800 77 66 00 TEXT 82111 http://www.talktofrank.com/

- National Drink Helpline:  0800 917 8282

- Mind Info Line: This provides confidential information about mental health. Phone 0300 123 3393 (9am-5pm Monday-Friday) or email info@mind.org.uk

- Sane Line: This provides information and support about mental health difficulties. Phone 0845 767 8000 (6pm-11pm)

- Samaritans: They provide confidential support to those in distress, including those who are contemplating suicide. Phone 08457 90 90 90 (24 hours a day) or email jo@samaritans.org

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9 Comments »

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  • Simon Boyce
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    You raise a lot of interesting points in this article. I am slightly concerned with how you have grouped together depression, bipolar disorder, anorexia, drug abuse and suicide. They’re very different phenomena with distinct causes and though they can be linked in some ways the effect of celebrity culture on each of these is very different. Drug abuse and suicide are not necessarily mental health related, though I suppose I can see why you brought them up.

    Just to pick at a few points (though I could write a book on the subject, at least I’m trying to) you seem to be of the opinion that the glamorising of bipolar disorder is a bad thing overall. Is this because its more positive image (than monopolar depression at least) may encourage false self-diagnosis and thus waste NHS time and money? Or is it because it may give unrealistic expectations to sufferers? Perhaps you think people will perceive sufferers in a particular way if all they know about the disease is that a disproportionate number of famous people have it?

    I’m curious as to why you singled out Time to Change (which is, to be honest, more of a publicity stunt than a useful charity – Ruby Wax especially was plastered over most of their material) to link to rather than put in any kind of suggestion of where to go to for support if you are affected by the issues you raise.

    One last thing for now at least, do you not think publishing photos of celebrities thought to have anorexia or bulimia could have a positive effect? More of a “look what you’re doing to yourself” rather than a “look what you could achieve” type thing? It’s not my area of expertise but from what I know from friends who have suffered and of the treatment they’ve received it’s an interesting area that divides opinion.

    Thanks for any reply.

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  • Tom Richardson
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    Thanks for the comments Simon. I appreciate a number of different illnesses are covered- these are mainly because these are ones where celebrities seem to get the most press. Agreed they are very different with many different causes, of which popular culture is only one small part. Drug abuse is technically a mental illness, but I put it in mainly because it is common in those with a mental health problem. As I said with suicide I brought it up because it is related to mental illness. Very different from depression I know but an area where celebrities are often sadly involved.

    Good stuff if you really are writing a book! What I was trying to say was that getting people aware about bipolar disorder is a good thing, but I agree with other people’s concerns that some reports appear to make light of the condition. Obviously it’s concerning if people are ‘self-diagnosing’, but I think anything that gets people to talk to their GP about having possible bipolar is good: it is still hugely under diagnosed. So I don’t think it will waste NHS time. I guess yes my main concern is the way it is presented and possible resulting expectations: I’ve worked with people with bipolar disorder who get frustrated when people say ‘being manic must be great!’ I’m not really trying to blame anyone just bring to attention the effect it may have on public perception.

    I think Time to Change is doing good work though I can see why you think they perhaps go a bit too overboard on celebrity endorsements. I picked it mainly as it’s the most high profile campaign in the country.

    In terms of publishing photos of celebrities with possible eating disorders…I think it’s more likely to have a negative effect. Most people with this illness (unless they are psychotic or have body dysmorphic disorder) are at some level aware of how thin they are. That shock approach may work motivate them to change for some, but for most it takes long term therapy for insight to work. Many teenagers with eating disorders have family and friends constantly commenting and telling them to eat and this often just creates stress which makes things worse. For celebrities I think publicity around their body will only make them more paranoid and self-conscious. But I don’t know for sure.

    Yes you’re right some places to go for help are important and I’ve now added some in.

    I hope I’ve addressed your points adequately! Thanks for the discussion I want my articles to provoke healthy debate!

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    Simon Boyce
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    Thanks very much. I appreciate you’ve taken time to add in some good points of contact there.

    That is an interesting point about mania not being perhaps quite as it’s portrayed. It can be quite dangerous in a few ways. In conversation with a mental health nurse a while back I was told that she found herself worrying particularly for her young female patients, some of whom were very impulsive and also suggestible when manic. I can think of three personal friends who have a reputation for promiscuity and hate it but they aren’t in control of themselves fully when in that state. Interestingly none of them are “out” about their condition.

    Another danger (I think more common in men but that’s only from experience, I should really look for a study on this) is that mania can often bring on psychotic symptoms. Obviously in that situation you can be a danger to yourself or others. I’ve never heard a celebrity mention this.

    Having worked with Time To Change I do have a pretty low opinion of them. Probably best not to go into detail about that here.

    Your comments seem spot on about eating disorders, as I said it’s not my area of expertise. I know that specialist units for people affected ban Heat magazine etc.

    Reply

    Tom Richardson
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    Hypomanic episodes (as seen in Bipolar II disorder) may not always cause problems, but the more severe manic episodes (as seen in Bipolar I disorder) certainly do. In fact the diagnostic criteria includes ‘excessive involvement in pleasurable activities that have a high potential for painful consequences (e.g., engaging in unrestrained buying sprees, sexual indiscretions, or foolish business investments). This largely due to high impulsivity whilst manic. Also to be diagnosed the episode has to be “sufficiently severe to cause marked impairment in occupational functioning or in usual social activities or relationships with others, or to necessitate hospitalization to prevent harm to self or others, or there are psychotic features.”. So yes there can be psychosis as well- an inflated sense of an ability can reach delusional levels- people believing they have a cure for cancer for example. Not sure if this is more common in men but could be…I’ll have a look for a study.

    As you rightly say- celebrities don’t often talk about this (though if you watch Stephen fry’s documentary is quite open about mania- says how he was so high he took cocaine to bring himself down).

    Reply

    Simon Boyce
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    I have seen Fry’s documentary. It happened to be shown around the time I myself was diagnosed which was made the process of coming out as bipolar much less painful.

    Reply

    Tom Richardson
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    Glad you found it helpful and hope you’re doing well

    Reply

    Simon Boyce
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    Thanks!

  • Ed
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    *Alastair Campbell.

    Reply

  • affiliate program software
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    Excellent information over again. Thanks a lot:)

    Reply